Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cerro Prieto the beautiful: Post Westside Paso Harvest and a time for reflection

4:45 a.m. and the bright 2/3 moon has long since set. Last evening even with the moon straight above at bedtime, Orion, the hunter with sword and shield was also directly overhead as was Gemini, the Twins, directly above Orion. The long, snakey Hydra was barely visible to the west, disappearing into the western horizon. Looking northwards, the Big Dipper and Ursa Major are readily visible, much farther south than they have been in months. Little Dipper and the North star are hidden by the massive oak forests to our north.  Memo: Cold and crisp outside, if I don't wrap house well, vineyard well, and house pipes today, we are going to be without water tomorrow.

5 a.m. and first lite appears, that time in the morning when the early Nile River dhow sailors could hold up their hand to the darkness and actually see individual fingers. That fact remains important to duck hunters in states, or countries(Mexico) where shooting begins at first light. Usually at that time of morning, the hunter can only hear the ducks whistling by overhead...but can see none.

5:15 and the first smudge of  daybreak can be seen to the SE, a blue grey smudge with a hint of orange...faint, but visible. The orange is beginning to creep west and north now, and by 5:30 the entire visible horizon to the south/ SE has a lovely thin line of orange, highlighting the southern mountains of the Templeton Gap, and the foothills of the Santa Lucias extending northward. First light, daybreak, the truly divine colors of early morn are a sense of renewal in this otherwise rather dreary, cold, damp first attempt at winter. Mornings fill the soul with joy, and those who miss them, are missing the one best part of each day. 7 a.m. now, and the sun is just up with the passionate oranges and pinks giving way to a halo of beautiful yellow-orange, warmth giving light.

Most mornings start this way in winter, but this day began a bit earlier as I was laying in bed trying to organize thots for this tardy 2 and 1/2 month blogpost. Altho we have but seven official followers, this blog is read by hundreds of folks, evidenced by the emails I receive. So it is catch up time, from the last post in Sept., when  we were still evaluating what the vineyard would produce...or not. To call this harvest a nailbiter would be a gross understatement. Since last writing, we had a two inch hard rain with 20 knot winds, smack dab in the middle of harvest. We saw temperatures hover at 60 degree highs(not much photosynthesis goes on in grapevines below that) , and lows each nite in the mid 30s down in our Very Cold Valley Vineyard. In short, we got cheated on both light and heat days, a combination of which is required to ripen grapes. As many of you know, there is a formula for the total of heat and light days each yr, which calculates where ripening is at any point in time. This yr we actually fell behind by more than 2 months of heat/light days. To be honest I quit counting, as the results were not favorable.

Cerro Prieto is harvested on basis of flavor...not ripeness of grapes, nor pH, TA(total acidity) and Brix
(sugar content). In Bordeaux, harvest dates are decided by the government (how odd), and many harvests may match up intersections of pH, TA, and Brix, but frankly, many of those grapes are still unripened, green, or bitter/ tannic. Simply put, we here in the Willow Creek area( a future proposed sub appellation of Paso Robles AVA) are smack dab in the heart of the heart of the world's one best place to grow and ripen red winegrapes. And Cerro Prieto is in the exact heart of that grapegrowing mecca. Add that to our intentionally low yields of 2.5 tons/acre for the 95% of grapes we sell, and the 1 ton/acre grapes we use for our wines, if anyone is going to ripen, it should be us. But ripening is just the easy part. Harvesting on flavor is what we do, insuring the most flavorful, well ripened fruit for world class wines. This yr? Unnh, we just said the beads, prayed for heat, no fog or rain and lots of sunlight. Essentially we got very little of what we normally have.

We did well to ripen this yr, let alone harvest on flavor. Based on decr cluster weights as well as fewer clusters, we had only 50% of our normal Cabernet crop. Merlot was down, but it struggled to ripen, going thru verasion 2 months late. Syrah was decreased in cluster size, but had a normal number of clusters. Our Very Cold Valley Vineyard did the best, both Sauv Blanc and Pinot, but even they got way less sun and heat than needed. For contracts of Cab we were 50% light, for Merlot 25% light, and Syrah was 14% light. The fact that everything ripened was amazing given the frigid, dark, wet conditions. As for flavor, well we had some, but nowhere near what this vineyard can do given a warmer, drier, year. Our one wine this yr will be Pinot, which in barrel right now is doing well. How it turns out will be anyone's guess, but with extra barrel time, I suspect it will do well. Sauv Blanc should be about the same, but the Cab, Syrah and Merlot we are famous for, got hit pretty hard.

No complaints here, however, as many neighbors, both near and far, lost anywhere from 20% to 90% of their crop, and that includes our neighbors from Napa/Sonoma to Santa Barbara, all the way down to Temecula. Everybody was acutely aware of the Big Dark Wet Cold of 2011. Climate change? yup. Global warming? Nah, not here. It was just frigging cold...and wet. Good riddance, and please don't come back. Unfortunately, '11 was a progression of '10, which also was the yr of the Big, Cold, Dark, Wet. Difference was, '11 was way, way worse. Our best Syrah ever came off in 2010, and will be our best wine ever. This yr I am betting on Pinot, but that is just a guess. The 2010 Syrah will be nationally known, no question about it.

Just a summary for those who have asked, 2005 was a cold, wet yr. '06,'07, '08, '09 were all hot drought yrs, and each and every vintage seems better than the one before. 2010 was our Syrah yr. 2011 is going to be disappointing up and down California, where we had a Bordeaux like harvest, but worse. If you can barely ripen, and not harvest on our internationally known flavors, expect the wine quality to take a dive. This is a yr where the really world class winemakers can shine, with 3 or 4 generations of winemaking experience in their resumes. Even for them, this will be a tough yr. Take it for what it is worth, but '06s to '09s, and spectacular '10 Syrah is where you want to be buying. '11 is going to be a less than stellar yr for you wine aficionados and collectors out there. That goes for all of California, too, not just here. Grower friends up and down the state have said the same to me.

Which is why I began this blog with the beauty of the dawn...beauty amongst mayhem is a way to even out the soul of a wine grapegrower. So I shall tell you why even with a tough yr, this is indeed, an enchanting and beautiful life. Grape growing and winemaking are traditionally thought to be the idyllic life. Well, maybe so at times, but right now we are putting out seed and hay on several vertical bare and denuded rows, mowing , disking, working on tractors, discs, erosion control, fertilizing and flushing irrigation lines, wrapping pipes, and putting away netting and bird distress call boxes. That's the nuts and bolts of post harvest.

The upside is as uplifting as the downside is drudgery. Just last morning, my wife, Teresa, and I watched motionless as a pair of hunting Red Foxes stealthily glided below our bedroom French doors. Nervous as a man with hives, the pair continuously rotated their heads, looking for danger, but obviously hunting the 150 some Merriam and Rio Grande turkeys that surround our deer fenced vineyard. Also the quail hatch has been phenomenal, with half a dozen coveys of 40 birds or more. The foxes made a pass by the garage, looking for a quick snack our our brave and wary cat, Sneakers. The turkey vultures, two of which were born just 100 feet below our home in a vacated wood rat nest, sail silently thru the trees, coming within feet of us sitting on the back porch. They are wild, but know that when I shoot a deer inside our deer fence, or coyote too close to the house, that they will eat well. When they fly by so closely, they are letting me know they are hungry. I routinely pick up roadkill, squirrels, raccoons, hawks, turkeys, and place them in the valley 400 feet below. The turkey vultures can smell decomposing meat at heights of up to 10,000 feet, and no sooner do I put some delicacy on the ground for them, they are there within minutes. They know. We are friends, sharing this beauty together.

While in Orange County last weekend we missed the assault of the Santa Anas, strong winds from the east that roar down ravines, mountains and valleys. We had some recorded gusts to 60 knots, so when we arrived home, we had half a dozen of our some 10,000 Live Oak trees on the ground, and Spanish moss plus downed branches were everywhere. Yesterday on a mission to begin cleanup, I encoutered a first on Cerro Prieto...my very first Chantrelle mushrooms. The distinctive yellow/orange color with the gills extending up to the inverted caps were sticking thru several inches of dirt growing out of the bases of oak tree roots. To my great sorrow, I was a few days late in finding them, but because of the extraordinary amount of rains, (some 6 inches since harvest), followed by several summer like days in Nov, I know there will be more Chantrelles where those came from. Sure, the leaves are all gone from the vines now, it is as plain as can be here at Cerro Prieto, but we have wild mushrooms to pick in the forests, Red Foxes, Lynx, Bobcats, Turkeys, Vultures, Quail, and the occasional visiting Mountain Lion to see. To date, I have identified some 30 different mushrooms here, most unedible, but not all, and cannot wait to go mushroom hunting today. Of course, that will have to wait for moving the barrels for blending, buying insulation for pipes, and collecting new potential bottles for our bottling.

Life of a vintner/ grapegrower can superficially appear glamorous. Closer to the truth, it is hard work, but enjoyable, and living in a paradise makes it all the moreso. Many of you have visited us over the last 3 yrs, and have done private tastings with the vintner, gone on vineyard eco tours, or occasionally, done barrel sampling with me. To all of you who have visited us this past two yrs we say hello and send our season's greetings. We also are incredibly grateful for the many kind things you, as well as wine scribes, magazines, and international competitions have said about our wines. For most of you, the national and international recognition we have received, plus your generous comments, make it all not only worthwhile, but a thrill to able to do something so well that is appreciated by all who have been here. Most of our sales, incidentally, are by email or phone call from those many folks and fans who have visited with us at one time or another. As most of you know, we only do private tastings, by appointment only, or by way of our now almost filled up wine club members. For those who have not visited us, go to our website and you can get information on how to do so.

We close this yr with an incredible first two bottlings, noted below.

2006 Merlot  Intl Gold Medal San Diego Intl (3300 entries), and Intl Gold medal Critics Challenge Intl
          (2900 entries).    Price: $129/ blt   SOLD OUT
2006 Paso Bordo(85% Cab/15% Syrah)   92 pts Wine Enthusiast    $89  Less than 2 cases remain
2007 Merlot (6% Cab/ 4% Syrah/90% Merlot)    91 pts Wine Enthusiast   $39      20 cases remain  
2007 Paso Bordo(85 Cab/15 Syrah)    Intl Gold medal LA Intl and 91 pts  $69  Less than 4 cases left
2008 Cab Sauvignon (86% Cab/4% Merlot/ 10% Syrah    Mouth watering blackberry, cherry, cocoa,
         Chocolate, with a hint of strawberry at edges, soft modulated tannins.    Out for review ,  currently my favorite wine
2008 Merlot (90% Merlot/10 Syrah)  sumptous cherry, with hint of plum, smoke, smooth finish. Out
          for review.

As a note, blendings of 09 Cab, Syrah, Merlot almost completed, and I believe all will equal and surpass our best wines to date. Better yet our 2010 Syrah will be our single best wine, but in barrel another yr.

That is it from here folks, friends, and wine club members. We wish you a happy and joyous holidays, hopefully with family and friends, and you might think of sharing one of your Cerro Prieto wines with them. A last comment and this is for the folks considering Cerro Prieto wines for gifts or just to stock up: We will take orders only until Dec 15th, as beyond that, we cannot guarantee any kind of meaningful delivery date. Also we will be closed for the holidays. Call for specifics if you are in town. For phone #s, emails, orders, please visit our website, http://www.cerroprietovineyard.com/.

Best regards to all,

Larry and Teresa/ Cerro Prieto

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